Vol. 52, No. 12
An HR executive listens carefully and focuses intently on problems that affect her organization's workers.
When a disagreement over a facilities plan threatened to deteriorate into a full-blown schism between TiVo Inc.'s large engineering staff in Silicon Valley headquarters and its small entertainment and media staff in New York City, Nancy Kato did what she does best. The senior vice president of human resources listened to folks at headquarters, then flew to New York City and listened there. Within days, she had mediated a plan accepted by all parties. No wonder some TiVo engineers have nicknamed her "Switzerland."
"If you don't have someone like Nancy truly in touch with employees, you can't manage the company," says CEO Tom Rogers, one of Kato's fans. "You need someone who is respected and has great communication channels to the CEO and to employees."
During the past 15 years, Kato has helped several high-tech companies manage creative chaos in Silicon Valley, a crucible of egoistic executives, eccentric software geniuses, socially inept hardware engineers, marketing mavens and perfectly normal people who keep the wheels from flying off these ferociously paced companies.
Paraphrasing General Electric's Jack Welch, Kato offers this formula for success: "HR [professionals] need to be part confidante, part mentor, part rulekeeper and taskmaster, and part juggler. But always you need to be a courageous steward for the company, its shareholders, its leaders and its employees. This is my role."Based in Alviso, Calif., 10-year-old TiVo developed the first commercial digital video recorder, thereby changing the way people watch television.
Besides leading an HR staff of a dozen, Kato views her role as holding up a mirror to executives and suggesting when they ought to rethink their plans. They might not always agree, but it is her job to speak up. "The most common failing for HR executives is being ‘yes people,' " she says. "You have to be able to challenge, but balance that by reinforcing positive behavior."
Kato maintains that effective people skills are essential and that understanding business and forging partnerships with executives are mandatory: Silicon Valley is results-driven. In HR, you have to be innovative, competitive, agile and fast-paced--all these things make Silicon Valley businesses successful." Kato, who will turn 53 on Dec. 31, has been at TiVo nearly three years. Long before she arrived, she had a reputation for a keen ear for listening, a compassionate heart and a diplomatic but no-nonsense way of speaking the truth as she sees it.
Kato's people skills were instilled by her parents, California-born Japanese- Americans who met in a World War II internment camp at Heart Mountain, Wyo. They taught their three children-- Nancy was second--the importance of family, hard work, education and compassion for all people. The family lived in ethnically and economically diverse East San Jose in a house still occupied by her 80-something parents.
With a master's degree in counseling, Kato honed her skills during 10 years as a therapist for emotionally disturbed and handicapped children, and taught these skills at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. In the late 1980s, she and her then-husband, also Japanese- American, adopted a baby from Japan. The HR opportunities seemed to find her. After a career break to spend time with her infant son, Kato joined Tandem Computer Inc., in Cupertino, Calif., to help launch a community affairs program. She later worked for the top executives on HR matters, including employee communications as well as executive assessment and compensation.
A few years later, she became the HR manager at Tandem's main manufacturing plant in Fremont, Calif. "I wanted to see if I could apply what I had learned about HR in the field," Kato explains. It was her trial by fire in benefits, wages, safety and other nitty-gritty HR details. She also learned more about the Tandem business.
When Tandem was acquired by Houston-based Compaq Computer in 1997, the CEO asked Kato to serve on the merger and integration team. It proved to be her most difficult professional challenge because of the culture clash.
"It was a difficult transition," she recalls. "The cultures were very different. Houston was, ‘Do it because we say so,' and Silicon Valley was, ‘Connect the dots for us; let's be collaborative.' " Kato got through it and remained at Compaq for three years as head of HR for the division that used to be Tandem. After leaving Compaq, she became top HR executive at Ariba Inc., a dotcom software company in Sunnyvale, Calif. When the dot-com bubble burst, she had the unenviable opportunity to manage big layoffs, including, eventually, her own. Kato landed on her feet as vice president of global compensation at Hewlett-Packard in Palo Alto, and two years later was recruited at TiVo.
Colleagues were surprised that she left HP for a much smaller company. She offers three typically Silicon Valley reasons: "TiVo is a fantastic product that is only going to add more functionality and creativity, [the company has] a strong and cohesive management team, and [working there provides] the opportunity to be part of building something meaningful."TiVo competes for talent with Apple, Yahoo!, Google and other notable Silicon Valley brands--and wins its share. Engineers represent about 70 percent of its 550 employees; about 30 percent hold advanced degrees. "People come here because of the product, the culture, the creativity," Kato says. "We get some of the brightest of the bright--from MIT, Wharton, Harvard and Silicon Valley." It says a lot about Kato that two TiVo engineers who had worked with her at Ariba urged her to apply at TiVo. Pauline Nist, an engineering executive at Tandem, says Kato works effectively with engineers because "Nancy will give it to them straight. Engineers often lack interpersonal skills, but if you offer them data-specific examples of where they erred, they understand. Nancy was a superb partner in helping me manage" Tandem engineers.
Kato says it helps her credibility with engineers to know things like the product road map, the cost of the product and the challenges of migrating software. It also helps that her sister is a software engineer and her brother an aeronautical engineer. Sometimes, it just comes down to making opportunities to build camaraderie. "The highlight of my week next week is Taco Tuesday," Kato says. "I'm taking about 25 engineers to the local taco truck, and they're having a competition to see who can eat the most tacos. I'll be an observer, not a participant."
Bill Roberts, technology contributing editor for HR Magazine, is a freelance writer based in Prunedale, Calif.